Back with a feature article on Spokane's defense, which ranks at or near the top in nearly every key statistical category in af2. Read on for the unedited version that will run in Wednesday's S-R.
(Pictured is Ben McCombs and Caesar Rayford making a tackle on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton quarterback Ryan Vena in the team's first meeting in July.)
By Jim Meehan
When Tennessee Valley backup quarterback Tony Colston scrambled through Spokane’s defense on a successful two-point conversion that clinched the Vipers’ 56-55 overtime win in the 2008 ArenaCup, he handed the Shock a painful loss and unwittingly gave the 2009 Shock defense a rallying cry.
“When you look back at that last play, the defense didn’t finish,” Shock defensive coordinator Alex Sirianni said. “That’s one thing we talked about in training camp this year – finishing, playing four quarters. Last week, we struggled the first three quarters (against
The Shock (18-1) outlasted
Against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last month, Gilliam picked off Ryan Vena’s desperation pass on the final play as
And last week,
“It’s just our will and desire,” McCullough said. “During that last series, we huddled up, said a few quick words, got a break and we knew what we had to do. When we’re put in those situations, we find a way to get things done.”
They limited five straight opponents to point totals in the 20s at midseason. In three playoff wins, they’ve yielded an average of 33.3 points. In Spokane’s only loss, Iowa scored 27 points in the fourth quarter en route to a 54-48 victory. One touchdown came on a return of a failed on-side kick, one came on a 12-yard drive after a Shock turnover and the last TD came on a 9-yard drive after another failed on-side kick.
“It starts with Coach Sirianni’s play-calling and trickles down,” nose tackle Frank Morton said. “Our defensive backs do a great job covering and making the quarterback hold on to the ball longer so we can do our jobs. We have competitions on the line to see who can get the most sacks.”
McCullough, Gilliam, Justin Warren, Stanley Franks and Ben McCombs, who had an af2-best 15.5 sacks, have been mainstays. They’ve played in all 19 games. Elsewhere, the Shock have thrived despite significant change at each level of the defense.
Lee Foliaki’s departure triggered the move of
“Kirton has the flexibility to play all over (linemen, linebacker and fullback),” Sirianni said. “When an offensive lineman and a fullback see the same guys every play, they can get comfortable. When he sees three different guys in eight plays, they don’t see the same tendencies.”
In the secondary, Aaron Williams was sidelined for an extended period with a knee injury, opening up time for Jimmie Sutton and Damon Jenkins. Virgil Gray entered the picture later in the regular season and became a starter. He also helps on kick returns, giving work-horse receiver Raul Vijil an occasional break.
“The players that have been brought in have helped us overcome adversity,” Gilliam said. “They’ve been a big part of our success.”
Sirianni said he stresses “living to fight another day. We feel like if we can make a team go six or eight plays to go down the field they’ll make a mistake before we do.”
“Football games are won up front and if we get consistent pressure if forces the quarterback to make bad throws or it throws off the timing,” Sirianni said. “That’s where the DBs come in. Now they can go make plays. It all works together and they all have to take care of their jobs.”
“It’s an offensive game,” head coach Adam Shackleford said, “but when defense is the backbone of your team you’re going to win a lot of games.”